For serious policy analysts in Washington, and President Obama is among them, the problems that the Americans are facing in Afghanistan pale in comparison to what they fear may happen if the situation in Pakistan continues to deteriorate.
In Afghanistan, they will probably accept that even after the enhanced military presence that is currently being planned, no outright military victory is possible. They may be prepared and may be forced by circumstances to allow pockets of Taliban rule in the Pashtun dominated South and East of the country, probably an inevitable and logical consequence of the probable decision to have NATO forces work with local leaders at the district level, setting aside the central government in Kabul.
Such an arrangement, along with the building up of the Afghan National Army, will become their exit strategy. Their only condition with the Taliban would be that they do not provide safe havens for Al Qaeda or other terrorist organisations, and that hopefully they would not resume a battle with other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
This could work, even though it will leave Afghanistan in a state of continued instability. ‘Moderate Taliban’ have possibly been telling their Saudi interlocutors and through them the Americans that the erstwhile Taliban leadership with a few exceptions was just as opposed to the Al Qaeda “Arab Brigade” presence in Afghanistan as they were to any other foreign presence.
Mullah Omar, they would argue, was seduced into tolerating the presence of the Al Qaeda by external forces. The Taliban had no extra territorial ambitions of their own, beyond perhaps the Pashtun belt of Pakistan, as was proved by the fact that no Afghans had been involved in terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan.
Whether this works in Afghanistan or not, it is certainly not the sort of strategy that can be duplicated in Pakistan. Every Pakistani extremist group, whether allied with Al Qaeda or not, has a worldview and harbours ambitions about other parts of Pakistan and beyond Pakistan’s borders. Pakistan has diaspora in Europe and America from which some youths have been coming to Pakistan to train under the auspices of Al Qaeda or its sister organisations.
By the reckoning of American and other western intelligence agencies, most, if not all, terrorist incidents in the West traced back to Pakistan even before the Al Qaeda leadership fled Afghanistan to take shelter in the Pak-Afghan border areas. This remains the area from which the next attack on the West can be expected.
The Obama administration may be talking of treating Pakistan and Afghanistan as one “theatre” but their real concern is Pakistan. The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan will affect NATO forces and the Afghan people, but if Pakistan’s extremists expand into the settled areas, the prospects of a terrorist attack on the US or its allies will increase exponentially even if the terrorists do not get access to nuclear weapons or nuclear material. This, for President Obama and his team, is the crux of the matter.
Pakistan’s fight against extremism and Pakistan’s stability are thus critical for the US and its allies. Perhaps for the first time in the chequered history of US-Pakistan relations, the governments of the two countries have a genuine commonality of interest.
The Obama administration is taking immediate steps to resurrect the Biden-Lugar bill under a new name to grant Pakistan $1.5 billion in economic assistance annually for the next ten years. It will play an important role when the Friends of Pakistan meet in March or earlier to ensure that other countries make a substantial contribution towards easing Pakistan’s current economic problems.
This help will be necessary given the global recession and the shrinking availability of resources and the increasing demand for such assistance. The setting up of reconstruction opportunity zones is problematic but there can be agreement on earmarking a substantial part of the new assistance for the tribal areas.
Obama is also prepared to offer assistance to Pakistan in training its army and paramilitary forces for counter-insurgency operations. Military assistance will largely be directed towards enhancing Pakistan’s counter-insurgency capabilities but could also include the provision of conventional weapons or of technology for weapon systems or platforms developed indigenously or in cooperation with the Chinese.
Despite Indian reservations and the Indo-US strategic alliance, the US will also be prepared to use some of its diplomatic capital to help India and Pakistan resolve their problems, foremost among them the Kashmir issue, and it will work on addressing Pakistan’s concerns about the Durand Line and about Indian influence in Kabul.
Realistically, not much can be expected from such an initiative but it may help to resume the Indo-Pak dialogue, mitigate some of the tensions arising from the Mumbai incident and may give fresh impetus to the Pak-Afghan dialogue.
In return, Obama would like a reassurance from all centres of power in Pakistan that there is no ambivalence about the existential threats that the extremists pose to Pakistan and that there will be an unremitting effort to fight this menace militarily and politically. His people will want to be reassured that the doubts expressed by the Swat residents about the commitment of the army to fighting the Fazlullah-led militants are ill-founded. They will want the assurance that, whatever Pakistan’s views on American policy in Afghanistan, it regards the continuing instability in Afghanistan as exacerbating Pakistan’s own problems and will help NATO forces to bring stability to Afghanistan.
In specific terms, the Americans would like to see a greater effort to ensure the safety of trucks carrying NATO supplies to troops in Afghanistan. Despite General Petraeus’ brave words during his last visit to Pakistan about having worked out agreements for using the Russian-Central Asian route, it is apparent that nothing is finalised and, equally importantly, such an alternate route will be far more expensive and far more time consuming.
This has acquired a new urgency following the decision — perhaps reversible — by the Kyrgyz president to close the US airbase in Manas and by the temporary halt of traffic through the Khyber Pass after the blowing up of the bridge in the Khyber Agency.
On this issue, Obama may, if the route through Pakistan becomes untenable, make concessions in Europe and Central Asia to Russia and incur the additional expenditure involved to be able to use the Russian-Central Asian route. He cannot and will not give up his focus on Afghanistan.
The Americans will want better intelligence sharing between NATO, the Afghan military and the Pakistani military. The one intelligence sharing centre set up near Khyber has not functioned too well. Can this be made better? Will the other five centres be set up?
It is clear that so far there has been a great amount of suspicion and distrust on both sides because it has not been accepted that there is a shared interest in the elimination of militants, be they on the Afghan or Pakistan side of the border and this has undermined the value of so-called intelligence sharing.
Obama is not going to stop drone attacks on targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The question now is whether Pakistan can help to ensure that targets are properly identified and civilian casualties are avoided. Another question would be whether we can direct the use of sophisticated US technology to pinpoint such militants as Baitullah Mehsud and Fazlullah.
Obama’s envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, will be in Pakistan within the next week or so. He is coming, he says, with a listening brief. He has been termed a “bulldozer” because he has pursued with abrasive force his country’s objectives in negotiations but also because he has been forceful within the American establishment in getting agreement on what he proposes. He is, let us not forget, a seasoned diplomat who will first and foremost try, like others in his profession, to find and build upon common interests.
If Holbrooke finds that our pursuit of the common interest is sincere, his bulldozer methods would help in getting a better hearing for our needs and concerns both in Washington and in the regional capitals.
The writer is a former foreign secretary
Article reproduced by permission of DT